When you leave shore and head out, you never really know what’s coming.
That may sound simplistic, or obvious, but really it’s not. Plans are made, intentions are (at least loosely) stated, best-case and worse-case scenarios are presented and planned for, with a plan “B” to follow “A”, and a “C” to follow “B”…
Most of the time our plans work out pretty close to the way we hope, so I’m not dissing the Universe when I say that curve balls will be thrown and Mother Nature always bats last. My moments of gentle sarcasm are more an acknowledgement that we are not – any of us – nearly as in control of our lives as we’d like to pretend.
For our trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas, we took it easy, three days. It’s only 58 nautical miles (67 miles as the car would drive), so we could have done it straight through in about 12 hours. But that would require really pushing it, since there are only 12 hours of daylight right now, and you do NOT want to arrive in the Dry Tortugas Park in the dark. Since hurricane Irma last fall, the shoals have shifted, and many of the navigational markers which show them are damaged or missing.
So we sailed (well, mostly motored due to lack of wind) to Boca Grande Key (no solitude there! Saturday night and it was crawling with testosterone and beer-scented sunscreen) first, then Marquesas Key (blessedly quiet and dark enough to see real stars!), and finally a 7:30am departure for the final 42 mile jump across open water to the Dry Tortugas. Where the first two days had a distinct lack of wind, the final stage had buckets of it – and from behind, which Sionna abhors. We rocked, we rolled, we waddled, we sashayed west with 20 knots of wind off the starboard quarter and making 5.8 knots average for the trip – a speed record never before approached by our good old boat.
We. Were. Smokin’.
We were also exhausted when we arrived 8 hours later. Sionna with the wind behind her is like a round-barreled pony that’s determined to roll in the grass, and only constant vigilance by the helmsman/woman can keep her from it.
So bed felt particularly welcome soon after a lovely sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, to the harmonies being strummed from Sionna’s rigging by the intensifying breeze. Anchor alarm set, we slept… and woke to check outside….. and slept… and woke to silence the thrumming halyards… and slept… and woke…
It can be understood that when dawn came, we were rested, but not well rested, and that first cup of coffee produced by my lovely wife was most appreciated. It would have been even better if we’d had a chance to drink it, but I got only a couple sips and a nibble of my chocolate-almond biscotti before an unfamiliar sound led Nicki to poke her head outside and say, not entirely calmly, “They’re going to hit us! We’re going to be hit!”
“Bam!” “SCRAAAAPE…” (I hate that sound).
Houston, we have company.
No, more than company. They’ve attached themselves to us, a Remora (otherwise known as a “Sucker Fish”).
Another sailboat has dragged their anchor from upwind of us, and a dragging boat drifts sideways to the wind. They have “t-boned” us, impacted on Sionna’s bowsprit – her pointiest point – about ⅔ of the way along their length, and their bow has swung alongside, their rudder now firmly held by OUR anchor rode which is caught in the space between their rudder and keel. They have come to rest alongside, and our anchor is now holding both Sionna and 35’ Benetau .
For the time, at least, we are holding, and I’m thanking my lucky stars for oversized ground tackle, but how to get them loose? The tension on the anchor rode (¾’ nylon line) is incredible. While Sionna is mostly pointed into the wind, Benetau is hanging at an angle, presenting a huge surface area to the wind and adding her 20,000# weight to the 14,000# of Sionna. No chance of hauling it in slightly by hand to create some slack.
So much for plan “A”.
The only likely option is to drop our anchor rode entirely (called “slipping” your gear), hoping it will sink enough to release their rudder when the tension comes off. At that, we could be leaving them to a worse fate than they faced before – if our line is caught in their rudder, they’ll be unable to steer, and may end up anchored by their rudder. I think this, and I tell their skipper all this, quickly, shouting over the wind, giving orders. There is no time to be gentle, I have my own boat to save…
The far end of our rode must be freed from where it’s secured below in the anchor locker, and after doing so I gather up our life vests, don mine, and carry Nicki’s to her on deck. The remaining 150’ of ¾” line (we have 25’ of it deployed in the water, along with 75’ of ⅜” chain coupling it to the anchor) must be hauled out from below decks and roughly coiled and bound, then threaded through the stancions and furler lines until it can be tossed from the boat. Now, when we figure out how to uncleat that line against its incredible tension, it should eject overboard without catching on any part of either vessel. Benetau’s inexperienced crew – a middle aged and clearly terrified but courageous woman – finds me a float (an empty Tide bottle), and I tie it to the anchor rode. If it floats, we may get our $1000 worth of gear back.
Plan “B”: I ask Nicki to try to power forward, attempting to take the strain off, but our 27 horsepower does nothing – we gain not an inch against the pressure of the wind. Nicki finds my boat knife in the pants I’m not wearing and brings it forward.
Time for plan “C”. There is no “D”.
I retrieve a length of ½” nylon line while Nicki re-routes the standby anchor’s chain so that once we are (hopefully) free, we’ll have a clear anchor to use. My memory flashes on the knot practice that Nicki and I used to do, sitting in front of the wood stove on a winter evening in Maine, glass of red wine at hand. Which one to use? I need to secure my ½” line to the ¾” nylon rode in such a way that I can lead it to the anchor windlass and pull, thus releasing the strain at the cleat. Only the Rolling Hitch will do – and it’s one of my five “must know” knots and hitches.
Hitch applied, line wrapped 3 turns around the drum, Nicki applies pressure to keep the line from slipping (called “tailing” a winch) while I crank. SO stiff, there is SO much pressure on that line, the handle barely moving, but we gain an inch, then another, wait out a gust, gain another 3 inches or so and suddenly nothing – the windlass’s handle has folded in half near the end – useless!
But 5 inches is just enough. Nicki holds her tension so we don’t loose that critical five inches, and I uncleat the anchor rode, dump 150’ of line overboard, and touch the edge of my knife to the ½” line a foot from my hitch… “Bang!”, and it’s gone.
I watch for the float. Benetau begins to move, scraping and bumping along Sionna’s port rub rail, but I have eyes only for the float. If it appears, Benetau is free and our gear recoverable. If it does not….
Such is my focus, and such is the noise of the wind, that I don’t witness the drama unfolding aft. Benetau has swung to port as she moves, and her bow is now caught against our dinghy, suspended in the davits off our stern. Nicki tells me later that the dinghy swung up and out, lines straining, and she at the helm did the only perfect thing – rudder hard over and full power to kick Sionna’s stern – and the dinghy and solar panels – away from the other boat’s bow. At the same time, I see that beautiful orange Tide bottle pop to the surface on the far side of Benetau, our anchor rode and anchor below, safe for another day’s efforts. We are free.
Minimal damage to Sionna’s port side and bowsprit. It could have been so much worse…
The drama continues, but our part in it is nearly done. We re-anchor with our secondary without issue, and Benetau spends the next hour trying, and trying again, to get an anchor to set. This harbor is on record for having variable holding – some areas are good, and some are not – but poor Benetau can’t seem to catch a break. Finally I raise them on the radio, and nearly order them (though it is his choice, until they are secure WE feel unsafe) to pick up the one and only mooring here. It’s clearly labeled “Gov’t Use”, and sure enough, a ranger immediately comes on the radio to advise that it can only be used in emergencies. I explain the situation, and he subsides into silence in the safety of his brick and mortar office ashore.